Eden’s Edge

“Eden’s Edge” by Katherine Satorius
Hammer Museum, Los Angeles CA
May 13 – September 2, 2007

Originally published in ArtUS 20

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Moving through “Eden’s Edge: Fifteen L.A. Artists,” Gary Garrels’s meticulously composed, densely layered curatorial debut at the Hammer, feels very much like winding through an artfully overgrown garden, with vegetation deliberately selected and planted but finally allowed to proliferate and intertwine at will. Each of the 15 L.A.-area artists, represented by a modest but round sampling of work, occupies a separate plot, a mini-gallery large enough to host a self-contained ecosystem but not so large that it obscures the broader landscape—which, in general, is characterized by organic, figurative, beautiful, physical, warm, hedonistic, and snarled affects, to near-total exclusion of hard-edged, unadorned, removed, cool, solemn, or clean ones. While “Eden’s Edge” is meant to be a snapshot of the current L.A. art climate, it’s not intended as a definitive one—Garrels could have pointed his lens in any number of other directions and presented us with entirely different results, so diverse are the practices of the city’s many artists (though it would be hard to come up with an equally convincing opposite impression—it’s not as if the L.A. scene is perfectly diffuse). The art isn’t forced to converge or to serve as broader arguments: Garrels’s claim is simply that of all possible shots he could have framed at the time he set out to curate the show in 2005, this is the one he found most compelling.

“Eden’s Edge” progresses from the longest-practicing artists (Ken Price, Jim Shaw, Lari Pittman) to more recent arrivals on the scene (Anna Sew Hoy, Matt Greene, Elliot Hundley)—an elegant organizing principle that gives structure to the show in the absence of a rigid curatorial framework. Leading off with Ken Price’s lascivious yet childlike ceramic sculptures is an inspired move. There are many artists on whom Garrels might have chosen to stake an L.A.-themed exhibition—patriarchs like Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, or Ed Ruscha. But Price makes an unexpectedly ideal point of departure: the trajectory of his nearly 50-year-old practice exists largely outside the realm of art world trends—he doesn’t come trailing a pre-established lineage. His work, with its currents of shape-shifting, of sex, of near-decadent beauty, puts him on wavelength with most of the other artists in “Eden’s Edge,” while the throbbing colors of his sculptures set the stage for the saturated, vibrant palette that will pervade much of the exhibition.

One of the most delightful qualities of “Eden’s Edge” is the way its strands of recurring themes and motifs run through it like a network of veins. As you move through the show, echoes keep building—by the end, the 15 artists seem elaborately layered and intertwined. Tapping into the vein of sex, for example, are, in addition to Price’s sculptures, Monica Majoli’s eerie, transcendent watercolors of S&M submissives in rubber suits, which supply the show’s most tranquil moment; Matt Greene’s fairly trendy panoramic orgies featuring lingerie-clad women dwarfed by mushrooms; and the gorgeous tangle of neon words—“office,” “factotum,” “honeysuckle”—suspended from Jason Rhoades’s “Twelve-Wheel Waggon Wheel Chandelier” (2004), united by their undercover identities as slang for female genitalia. The exhibition is punctuated by other such moments of blinding beauty: Ginny Bishton’s collages, made from thousands of tiny color photograph bits, look like aerial views of spectacular, otherworldly flowerbeds; the hallucinogenic SoCal landscapes of Sharon Ellis are streaked with fluorescent clouds and pulse with stars; Rebecca Morales’s lavishly textured drawings on translucent calf vellum are as seductive as mossy grottos; Elliot Hundley’s ornate assemblages of cut photographs, fake flowers, string, and myriad other materials are like playgrounds for the eyes; and Larry Pittman’s relentlessly layered paintings, seeming to compress slices of space and time, are beautifully filigreed with fine, graphic lines as if to keep the incredible mass of painted matter (toilets, keys, plastic lawn chairs, cell phones, human figures, blueprints) from crashing out of the picture plane. The thread of lucid visions and dream narratives, introduced by the work of Jim Shaw (his ongoing “Dream Object (Paperback Cover)” series depicts scenes so thrillingly weird that for a short while afterward, everything else seems leaden in comparison) gets picked up again with Liz Craft’s “Death Rider (Virgo)” (2002), a tour-de-force bronze of a grinning skeleton astride a motorcycle made of plant matter. A bronze “Ballad of the Hippie” (2003) sits cross-legged nearby, as if experiencing the vision. Surreal narrative permeates the video work of Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn, as Kahn, outfitted in a slapdash Viking costume, wanders the no-man’s-lands of L.A. casually recounting gruesome tales of death and hell to her anonymous videographer (“Can’t Swallow It, Can’t Spit It Out,” 2006).

Just as in a real Eden, plant and animal life abound in the galleries: mushrooms, spider webs, flora, and vines are all recurring motifs. Intensive craft is likewise prevalent, from Hundley’s constructions to the (partially) ceramic sculptures of Anna Sew Hoy, which, while hearkening back to Price’s ceramic works, are reminiscent of objects associated with backwoods hippie outposts (dream catchers, Scholars’ Rocks, wind chimes) and bounce cleverly between decoration and functionality. Aside from Mark Bradford’s paintings, which incorporate actual street advertisements and provide one of the exhibition’s only instances of geometry and urban grit (his trademark patches of colored paper can resemble clusters of cars or buildings viewed from overhead), this is not the L.A. of concrete and freeways and shabby strip malls. It’s the one that exists underneath the pavement and creeps around it, that springs from unkempt backyards and spreads up the hills. It’s a primordial world, or maybe a post-human one: a work by Larry Bell or Robert Irwin in this context would seem startling, at once futuristic and ancient. Beautiful and fecund as the work in “Eden’s Edge” may be, it does suffer at times from a slight twinge of self-satisfaction that isn’t entirely savory—symptomatic of a lack of urgency, perhaps, that might go hand-in-hand with the general absence here of anything like doubt or despair. But even those who are liable to resist the work in “Eden’s Edge,” and deride it as magic forest art, should find something to admire in the nearly impeccable craftsmanship of Garrels’s exhibition, which itself is a tightly conceived, intricately laced conceptual feat.